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Obituary: Sheila Steafel – ‘versatile actor who excelled in comedic roles’

Sheila Steafel. Photo: Nick James Sheila Steafel. Photo: Nick James

Speaking to The Stage in 1979, Sheila Steafel described herself as “a straight character comedy actress who always wanted to be a musical star”. The self-analysis was characteristically acute and throwaway, a deft sleight of hand that saw her excel in comedy on stage, screen and radio and appear with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic and in the West End, notably with her one-woman shows.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to a Lancastrian father who was active in amateur dramatics and a pianist mother, Steafel moved to London in 1953 aged 18 to spend a term in RADA’s preparatory academy. Failing her audition for a full-time place, she enrolled at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1955 with its Silver Medal.

After working in regional reps and touring with Children’s Theatre in Wales, she came to attention in London with her music hall-era creation, the delightfully gauche, off-balance, off-key Miss Popsy Wopsy (later often reprised on television’s The Good Old Days) at the Players’ Theatre.

In 1961, Steafel made her West End debut taking over the role of Barbara opposite Tom Courtenay’s Billy Liar at the Cambridge Theatre. The Stage noted of her appearance in Roger Booth’s Anyone for England at the Oxford Playhouse in 1965 that she had “the knack of taking the stage and immediately making her presence felt”.

It was a quality that saw her television career blossom in the same period, a run of well-received dramas capped by the satirical The Frost Report from 1966 to 1967 and radio spin-off sketch show Horne A’Plenty in 1968 and 1969. Success there established Steafel as a comedienne of choice for successive generations of light-entertainment stars from Bernard Cribbins and Tommy Cooper to Spike Milligan and Kenny Everett.

In theatre, she was seen in Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman at Watford Palace in 1969 and with Warren Mitchell in Larry Gelbart’s Jump at Queen’s Theatre in 1971. Steafel was in Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves at the Leicester Phoenix in 1970, which went on to the
Lyric Theatre and on tour in Canada in 1972.

She realised her musical ambition in Julian Slade’s Salad Days at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1976, contrasting it with the spectral White Lady on television in The Ghosts of Motley Hall and as a morbid, introspective Enid Blyton in Michael Frayn’s Balmoral at the Yvonne Arnaud Guildford in 1978.

Her breakthrough stage appearance came the following year as Harpo Marx in Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus’ reworking of Chekhov filtered through madcap comedy A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, at the Mayfair Theatre.

In 1982, she brought her first solo show, Steafel Variations, to the Apollo Theatre, following it with Steafel Express at the Ambassadors three years later and Steafel Stranded at the Strand Theatre in 1989.

In-between was a “performance of near-genius” as the ripely mature Lady Margaret in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna at the Young Vic in 1983 – the same year she co-founded the Theatre of Comedy Company with Ray Cooney and some 30 others – and an adroitly pitched Mother in Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ in Leicester in 1984, followed by a dipsomaniac Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor for the RSC in 1985.

Later West End appearances included Much Ado About Nothing and Chekhov’s Ivanov alongside Alan Bates and Felicity Kendal at the Strand Theatre, and a deranged mother in Jean Poiret’s Paris Match at the Garrick in 1989.

She was a delightfully discombobulated Edie in Philip King and Falkland Cary’s Sailor Beware at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1991 and spent 1995 with the RSC in Ben Jonson’s The Devil Is an Ass, John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse and Howard Brenton’s two-part adaptation of Faust.

In 2002, she was seen as Georgette in Peter Hall’s revival of Moliere’s The School for Wives at the Comedy Theatre, proved a memorable Meg in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at Bristol Old Vic in 2006, and was a wise-cracking mother to Samantha Spiro’s Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at Chichester in 2008.

She made her last stage appearances at the King’s Head Theatre in 2017 in The Malady Lingers On, a collection of sketches culled from her career and written for her by luminaries such as Keith Waterhouse, Barry Cryer and David Nobbs.

On radio, her gift for impressions came to the fore in the topical sketch show Week Ending from 1977 to 1982, in which she was an early impersonator of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and in her own shows, Steafel Plus in 1982 and Steafel With an S two years later.

A regular panellist on the Sheila Hancock-hosted theatre quiz Prompt! in 1987, she was also Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in 1997 and heard in Arnold Wesker’s The Rocking Horse a decade later.

Her marriage to the actor Harry H Corbett, from 1958 to 1964, prompted the title of her autobiography, When Harry Met Sheila, in 2010.

Sheila Frances Steafel was born on May 26, 1935, and died on August 23, aged 84.

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